May 24, 2024

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Inside Singapore Students’ Cutthroat Fight for Top Investment Banking Jobs

5 min read

The freshman at the National University of Singapore, or NUS, is on his third finance internship, but he says he’s just getting started.

Loh told Business Insider he plans to complete nine to 10 internships before he graduates. All this, the business administration student says, is part of his quest to land a job with a big bank like Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan.

In addition to clocking multiple internships, Loh said he’s striving to maintain a perfect GPA every semester.

“I have to grind a lot for academics and then do internships on top of that,” Loh said. “But I think that’s the kind of trade-off that most high finance people would make.”

Committing to the grind


JPMorgan headquarters at Canary Wharf financial district on 15th August 2023 in London, United Kingdom.

Loh told BI that he wanted to work at banks like JPMorgan because of their strong corporate culture and opportunities to engage with C-suite executives.

Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images



Working at a top bank like Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan has long been the ultimate goal for those who want to make their mark in finance. Besides six-figure starting salaries, staffers may get the opportunity to work on mega-deals and interact with C-suite clients.

But getting your foot into the door is a major undertaking.

Landing a summer internship at Goldman Sachs is even harder than getting into Harvard. Goldman’s internship acceptance rates globally were about 1.5% in 2022, way lower than Harvard’s 3.19% acceptance rate in the same year.

And while landing a job at Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan is hard anywhere, in Singapore, there’s the added societal pressure of “kiasu” — a colloquial term that roughly translates to “fear of losing” and is often used to describe the nation’s cultural ethos.

This is, after all, the land of Crazy Rich Asians luxury and tiger moms. Though efforts have been made to level the playing field, grinding one’s way into an elite school and a plush, high-paying job is still a marker of success.

Many Singapore students have adopted a similar playbook to Loh’s, padding their résumés with stacks of internships in the hopes of landing a spot at a top bank.

Eric Sim, a former managing director at UBS Investment Bank and the author of the career book, “Small Actions,” told BI that snagging a job at an investment bank has gotten “super, super intensive.”

“Previously, you could get an offer with one good internship. Now, you have to do multiple internships,” Sim said.

It’s also about networking, he said: “Now it’s not just about applying and getting a job, you need to get to know the working professionals out there so they will put in a good word for you and refer you to openings.”

Peer pressure is a huge driver


Adnan Hussain (left), 25, is a senior at the National University of Singapore.

Adnan Hussain (left), 25, is a senior at the National University of Singapore. Hussain told BI that he has secured a full time job offer to do sales and trading at a bulge bracket bank.

Adnan Hussain



Adnan Hussain, 25, is currently a senior at NUS. He said he and his friends had a hard time landing their first internships as freshmen.

“We applied for a lot of roles and cold-emailed, like, over 100 companies,” Hussain told BI.

Hussain ended up doing five internships throughout his college career, including stints at a hedge fund and a private bank. He says he has accepted a full-time job offer in sales and trading at a top European bank.

Hussain said his internships have ranged from summer programs that run for 10 weeks to off-cycle positions that can run for five to six months.

Hussain added that peer pressure fueled the rat race for many of his peers.

“There’s so much stress seeing friends taking a whole semester off to do an internship. If you are not taking the semester off, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, am I doing something wrong?'” Hussain said.

Consider Nicholas Tan, 24, a final-year student at Singapore Management University, or SMU. Tan is slated to join a top European bank as an investment banking analyst this summer.

Tan said he took a leave of absence, or LOA, for one semester in his sophomore year to intern at an investment firm.

“I did one LOA, but I know of juniors who have done two or three LOAs just to polish up their résumés and ensure they have a better chance of getting their dream jobs. It’s becoming more and more common,” said Tan.

Duo Geng Goh, who cofounded CareerSocius, a social enterprise that provides career advisory services to local universities in Singapore, said it has “become increasingly common for students to take on more internships.”

While most students would have completed about two internships five to ten years ago, Goh said it’s not unusual for investment banking aspirants to take time off school to complete as many as seven internships these days — it’s just a matter of finding enough time to do so.

Besides tapping on their summer and winter breaks, students can take one or two LOAs to complete internships as well — which would add up to seven or eight internships throughout college.

But the race to complete multiple internships, Goh says, doesn’t apply to banking in general.

“The students that want to get into commercial banking or corporate banking don’t have to do as many internships as those aspiring to do investment banking,” said Goh, who is also the strategy and people director at Glints, an online job portal.

The grind isn’t for everyone


Nicholas Tan, 24, is a senior at the Singapore Management University.

Nicholas Tan, 24, a senior at the Singapore Management University.

Nicholas Tan



Of course, not everyone buys into the grind.

Yen Chi Ang, 21, an NUS sophomore, said while she is gunning for a career in sales and trading, the rat race isn’t everything.

“I think it’s important to hedge your risks. If you do six or seven internships when you’re in university and you land a great job, that’s wonderful,” said Ang.

“But what if you don’t? You just ended up spending the best years of your youth chasing something, only to end up with nothing,” she added.

Students like Ang have a point, said Adrian Choo, the CEO and cofounder of a Singapore-based career strategy consultancy, Career Agility International.

Students need to think about what exactly they want to get out of an internship, Choo said.

“If you’re doing it just for the sake of beating the guy next to you, I don’t think that’s what hiring managers are looking for. It’s not a numbers game,” he added.

And students can probably pick up technical skills and important soft skills from just one internship, said Sim, the former banker. Sim said hiring managers also care about candidates’ soft skills.

“What I look out for is whether you have the social skills to talk to customers. Banking is really a sales job. You need to win the mandate from the customers,” Sim said.

But for some students like NUS’ Loh, forging ahead remains the goal, no matter what it takes.

“I think effort-wise, there really is no limit for me. Would I rather enjoy now but be mediocre in life or, worse, suffer later? Or would I rather grind now but gain the potential to succeed in the future? The latter resonates with me infinitely more,” Loh said.

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